Sunday, January 19, 2020

Enchantéd: The Amityville Murders (For Diane Franklin on her 58th birthday)

Enchantéd: A Retrospective Tribute to Diane Franklin

Part X: The Amityville Murders (2018)
(R, Skyline Entertainment)

Consider the following article my present to Diane Franklin on her 58th birthday. I have to admit that it took me longer than I hoped for to restart this tribute to the woman, if only because I've spent six years in a kind of existential limbo. Many unfortunate situations have befallen me ever since the nightmare year of 2016, and when I turned 30 a couple years prior, I had my first painful gut feeling about my future as a writer. For someone who has been trying to mature and give life to his dream craft, I observed too much regression and ignorance and insularity, and from all sides. People who I respected for their smarts or their hearts or even for just simple enthusiasm turned out to be closet nasties, with social media exposing their very hypocrisies and corruption.

Quality of life decreased sharply and didn't seem to improve as time went on. I had gotten to the point where the depression was too strong, and I left social media in 2016 for the purpose of clearing my head and then regarded what should have been a healthy return as a big mistake. I could not shake the continued realization of just how disgusted, disillusioned and discouraged I was in the company of two-faced acquaintances who were deadly smug in their noxious attitudes and behavior. I took a lot of abuse out on myself because I let myself take certain people seriously. Even when I tried to make it out in public, using an event in Stockton as an example, there was one certified cult icon who I met for the first time, but who confused me with someone else, someone he himself hated. I was in a bit of shell shock, and said simply, "I'm not that person." But the world around me had changed so much, that even if I was not that person, it was better to perceive and assume.

The event ended awfully for me, with one more supposed "friend" betraying me, although I had thicker skin at the time because I could see that he was a troll in male nurse's scrubs. He was a gay man living in Ceres, CA, with a partner who was critically ill, but also someone with misdirected emotions, and thus was susceptible to the worst kind of cult misanthropy. He was the kind of person who struck me as, to quote Maynard James Keenan, a "smiley glad hand with hidden agendas," and I desperately wanted to cut those people out of my life. I wonder sometimes if he has wizened up, but I don't dwell on it too much. It was just another disappointment in a long string of them, and I had to take another powder.

I was inconsolable for the most part, trying my damnedest to soldier on despite knowing full well that this sense of alienation was growing stronger. The longer I tried to keep a profile, the more I was seeing the very same smug piety in the people I was trying to present myself to. I came into film criticism and hoped it would resemble the "adulting" process: full of drudgery, to be true, but also ripe with discovery and people who would find similar joy in variety and expansion. It didn't happen that way: the internet is but a series of security blanket niche communities, unquestioning and repetitive and hardly as adventurous as I expected. I was seeing mediocrity or worse placed on pedestals, taken as ritual, damn near made the Golden Rule. And respectfully disagreeing, in the most tactful of comments, wasn't endearing me. I wanted to be as much a loudmouth as the next person, but I hated myself more for it, and my confidence was already depleting to near-nothing.

2016 set me on the path to a very clear epiphany, and it was this: I didn't want to be a part of any cults anymore. Even ones I was most active in, these communities were basically what Jello Biafra described in The Dead Kennedys' "Chickenshit Conformist," as "closed-minded, self-centered social clubs." Everything felt homogenized and trivialized and masturbatory to a breaking point, and the eternal misfit within me wanted to leave again. So I closed down my Twitter page, and further pruned Facebook to what was to be only my ten best high school friends. What happened to me is reminiscent of all that I found disreputable in the online environment, but there was no peace I could find. Everybody just wanted their egos stroked, and there was no such thing as genuine discourse.

There was one person who was caught in the emotional crossfire, and unforgivably so, given just how essential she meant to me for so long. Her name was Diane Franklin.

This photo was taken at the 2019 Los Angeles Hollywood Show, an event which I couldn't attend without the participation of my closest friend, John Grigg. Alas, he had moved to the Philippines soon after, and we now compare hardships through Messenger, although at least he had good reason to leave. In 2018, I lost my uncle to a heart attack brought on by prescription medicine. Almost a year later, I watched my grandmother succumb to dementia, having a fatal stroke on the day she was supposed to see a doctor. Even my pet chihuahua, a brown beauty named Rosie, couldn't survive because of a bum ticker. Unable to leave Mesa myself, I rented out the two empty rooms my departed family members occupied to a couple of Millennial manchildren, which means I get to hear the n-word frequently over nightly Xbox benders (to say nothing of the boring ass white boy cover of Sia's "Chandelier" played on a loop). And though I am out of touch with the online world now, I can't avoid hearing more tragic news about our best and brightest passing away. 2016 was a tough one to handle, but I have to dole out R.I.P.s no less frequently, be it for Scott Walker, Rutger Hauer, Roky Erickson, Daniel Johnston, Rip Torn, Rip Taylor, Ric Ocasek, Danny Aiello, Marie Fredriksson (from Roxette), and most recently, the titanic Neil Peart of Rush.

Even when I met Diane Franklin at that L.A. show, it was unavoidable that we would mention the departures of Louisa Moritz, who was the nympho Charo from The Last American Virgin, and James Ingram, the voice behind the Quincy Jones track “Just Once” which was used so much on that movie's soundtrack. I managed to rediscover an old SCTV episode, largely a network-based parody of The Godfather, where Ingram mimed that tune on Count Floyd's “3-D House of Beef,” ending with the singer getting his own in-your-face lampoon. The three members of Rush were no doubt fans of that great sketch comedy troupe, and I remember Geddy Lee made a reference to Mayor Tommy Shanks, played by the gone-but-never-forgotten John Candy, in a comical “dinner” short of their own. Canada, you're alright!

When Neil Peart wrote the lyrics to “Limelight,” a song from the perspective of a renowned musician “living in a fisheye lens,” he stressed the importance of barriers as a means of sanity. I put them up, Diane Franklin has put them up, it does work as long as you have a healthy perspective. Yet something stirred within me that I wonder what Peart would make of: this stranger suddenly made an honest-to-goodness, if not long-awaited, friend. Diane Franklin and I became great supporters of each other, and every piece I wrote about her movies are a testament to the genuine feelings I have towards Diane as a human being. And what I love about writing these is that I don't see Diane Franklin solely as an icon of the 1980s, though she is certainly packaged as that every time she makes a convention appearance or signs on to “'80s in the Sand.” I see her as a very talented and warm lady, compassionate and perky and droll and practical and playful and someone who is always a treat to talk to and spend time with. Given the parameters of our communication, I adore Diane Franklin with every fiber of my human being.

But I am out of the loop now, and it is a very melancholy development. For someone who was so excited about Diane's future, as well as that of her daughter Olivia DeLaurentis, cutting out social media not only limits my ability to network as a writer, but also leaves me cold to the endeavors of these two incredible women. Diane has so many upcoming roles to watch out for, and Olivia is still doing comedy with Sydney Heller and even getting her own feature film shot with producer Kimberley Kates, Diane's fellow princess from Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. It also didn't help that switching computers last year resulted in a sudden crash upon file transference, which means a lot of convention photos, and ones of me and Olivia in the same room, now lie rotting on an internal hard drive. Kimberley, too...and Kimmy Robertson, Adrienne Barbeau, Marilyn Burns, Virginia Madsen, and so many others. Sometimes I am accused of being too hard on myself, but FML just the same.

All this needed to be said before I summon up my courage and allow myself the chance to watch THE AMITYVILLE MURDERS, which is Diane Franklin's first widely-distributed film role since not only Bill & Ted, but also How I Got Into College, and her performance in Savage Steve Holland's third film seems to have been her recurring character in the short films Diane produced for Olivia. In a few weeks to day I am starting this review, Diane Franklin will be turning 58. Soon, I will be 36. And yet I cannot stop following my heart when the route leads to Diane, because I cherish her beyond comprehension. This should create conflicts of interest, but I hope that I was sufficiently clear-eyed in my past pieces on her, and if you follow me on Letterboxd, you will know that I have been open about my opinions about her filmography.

As it stands, I gave four stars to what I consider my favorite Diane Franklin movie, and you will be surprised to learn that it is the made-for-TV Summer Girl. This is the performance for me that exemplifies all that is not only sexy but superb about Franklin's screen presence. There is so much range that she demonstrates, and I always get a kick out of seeing someone so gorgeous playing such a demented, diabolical villain. I hope for a remastered DVD release, so it will do some justice to cinematographer Fred Koenekamp, who in his prime did Francis Coppola's Patton and Russ Meyer's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls in the same year.

Better Off Dead and TerrorVision, the latter of which has what I think to be another great Diane Franklin performance, both were rated one notch below, so they were graded 3.5/5. Maybe it's the fact that I haven't watched Better Off Dead since the inauguration of our real life Roy Stalin, but for as big a fan I am of Holland's debut, and the film which made me fall in love with Diane Franklin as a boy, I just want people to realize that Rob Reiner's The Sure Thing, which launched John Cusack as a leading man, might possess an edge in terms of the onslaught of teen comedies from 1985. That phenomenally charming romantic comedy may not have the catchphrases and stoopid gags that are admittedly priceless in Better Off Dead, but it too had a heart and even better chemistry among Cusack & Zuniga.

Second Time Lucky (and Deadly Lessons, another two-star decision despite the fine Ally Sheedy and the late Bill Paxton in supporting roles) is where I start to feel less certain about Franklin's past work. It's too cute and unambitious for its own good, and maybe it does play like another transparent chance to admire Diane Franklin in the buff, but her Jean Harlow impression is too irresistible for me to write that one off completely. And I do cop some uncomplicated arousal from Franklin in that film, whereas both The Last American Virgin and Amityville II: The Possession, the films that introduced her to the world, are repellent in insidious ways. These are films that I find a lot of people condescend to in their appreciation, and watching Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films only made like Boaz Davidson's film less than I did when I was 19, initially giving it a cold two stars.

It's that abortion sequence, the camera ogling Diane Franklin as she removes her panties even as it pans up to Karen's scared face. And the cutaway to the pizza being sliced. That kind of tastelessness I don't find celebratory. If we can knock Sixteen Candles and Revenge of the Nerds for their dated and off-putting sexual politics, then I don't see why something equally sickening should be ignored. Furthermore, it's the films I watched later which confirmed my initial turn-offs to The Last American Virgin, and not just Davidson's first two homegrown sequels to Lemon Popsicle, the foreign film that people don't know was remade to be Franklin's inaugural cult classic. It was the coming-of-age cornerstone Summer of '42, which laid bare just how derivative the characterizations of the male leads and many of the sniggering sex gags truly were, and also John Duigan's 1987 film The Year My Voice Broke, which starred very young performers (including Aussie character actors Noah Taylor and Ben Mendelsohn) and was also a period piece like the original Lemon Popsicle, dealing with mad teenage infatuation and unrequited love. Yet it had all the graces (character development, comfortable silence, adults who weren't all dunces) Davidson forever lacked as a writer/director, and came across more honest than to be just another mean-spirited quickie pandering to its adolescent audience (“See it or be it,” indeed).

I can't say I anticipate a remake of The Last American Virgin. I get the hunch that the late James Ingram's soulful voice will be replaced by the overwrought crowing of Lewis Capaldi at the end. Blame it on one of my roommates playing “Someone You Loved” to absolute death already, but I can't call that song nowhere close as successful as “Just Once.” Quincy and Jimmy had Brill Building team Mann/Weill as composers, and they also wrote "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin.'" Even if Capaldi's song is on the nose enough to fit, it is not a particularly dignified expression of the particular form of heartbreak which capped off The Last American Virgin, and it's going to make the remake actively worse.

Which brings me to Amityville II: The Possession and, by proxy, THE AMITYVILLE MURDERS. You know, I am proud of the pieces that I wrote for Diane Franklin's 1982 flicks, because they weren't as overbearingly negative as they could have been. But I cannot bring myself to give either more than a 1.5/5. Let Siskel & Ebert be remembered for their unfairly scathing review of Better Off Dead, but also know that Gene elected that sequel (“or was it a prequel?”) as one of the Stinkers of 1982. And I get it more than I do his opinion on Better Off Dead. Compared to the rest of the series, its repulsiveness and opportunism and nihilism certainly makes it stand out compared to its slew of DTV successors. But oh, Diane Franklin does have a bit of a questionable legacy. I can still remember Rhett's observation from

“Sonny first flirts with his sister Patricia, then gets her to undress, then has sex with her, and then calls her a slut throughout the rest of the picture. It is incredibly uncomfortable viewing, and as if the clash between suspense-driven and effects-driven horror weren’t enough, the incest flavoring makes the film even more of a head-scratcher...As if it weren’t bad enough that Diane Franklin gets raped by her brother, it is also discovered late in the film that (surprise!) the priest was also leering for her virginal body. Between being leered at by her brother and priest in Amityville II, and impregnated by her irresponsible boyfriend in her other 1982 debut, The Last American Virgin, actress Diane Franklin may just be the teen queen of misogyny.”

Rhett's frank commentary on Diane Franklin's exploitation beginnings sounds like a Malcolm X speech compared to what a Bill Chambers or Jack Sommersby or even a Kim Newman would write, and it does have more truth. Besides, didn't Rick call Karen a whore in the library? The old virgin-whore dichotomy served up for hipsters aiming to one-up the old critics who once called a spade a spade. This ain't no party at all. And Diane Franklin deserved better, as Newman pointed out in his review of THE AMITYVILLE MURDERS.

(Save your TL;DRs, I'm about to transition here.)

Daniel Farrands is certainly an Amityville II fanboy, else why would Diane Franklin be coaxed into making her comeback in the very role Rutanya Alda played back when? There's even Burt Young, although our Anthony Montelli is now Paul Ben-Victor. It's on brand for Farrands, who along with partner Thommy Hutson bankrolled several comprehensive horror franchise retrospectives. In between their Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street exposés, they also produced an independent film called The Trouble With the Truth alongside its leading actress, Lea Thompson. And I recommend that film even if you never once lusted after Zoey Deutch's mom; it's a career-best performance, dialogue-driven but full of honest emotion and nuance, to match Lorraine Baines or Miss Amanda Jones.

I'm learning that Thommy Hutson in particular really loves the scream queens of his youth and has been doing them solids in the industry over and over. I never saw Prank, which was directed by Halloween 4 & 5 stars Danielle Harris (who gets to share the opening scene of The Trouble with the Truth with John Shea) & Ellie Cornell as well as Heather Langenkamp (I can only dream of doing for Diane Franklin what Hutson does for Langenkamp), but my positive response to Amanda Wyss in Hutson's own The Id is on record. And now Farrands in the position to make Diane Franklin come alive on the screen in such a fresh, fascinating way like Lea Thompson or Heather Langenkamp or Amanda Wyss. I am so pumped up that these women have starring/directing/producing roles that are revelatory in a way that proves you don't need only a Tarantino to reward their longevity and professionalism.

If you could imagine me shuffling my feet in the presence of Lea or Diane or Amanda, think of how I'm finally getting to THE AMITYVILLE MURDERS after Daniel Farrands unveiled his followups, The Haunting of Sharon Tate and The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson. Then watch me turn and run. As Lionel Richie once sang: “Oh no.” I need to see The Final Interview or Waking Nightmare to reassure myself that there's such a thing as an up to go to.

Farrands takes off from the DeFeo family massacre just like Amityville II: The Possession did, but there have been differences made in the past 25 years besides Franklin aging enough to play the materfamilias. Dino De Laurentiis has given way to Jason Blum. We are no longer plagiarizing The Exorcist, but instead Paranormal Activity and its progeny. Computers do all the dirty work as opposed to technicians. But there are similarities to go with the changes. George Lutz remains a hoax perpetrator, and it's equally tough these days to entertain demonic possession as the catalyst for “Butch” DeFeo's homicidal mania. The more pressing reasons, particularly that toxic household of neurotic relatives, are reduced to caricature. And there's more speculation than immersion to be taken in; though callous incest is no longer a factor, there's a lot of shady mafia ties and dealings to provide non-credence to a claim from the real life Butch.

Farrands has, based on the uniform reception of his three directorial efforts, tried for an unholy mixture of morbid elements, perhaps bucking for that camp value dollar. There are authentic photos and phone calls from the documented tragedies buffering nods to conspiracy theories and conflicting 'n' shifting testimonies, an unappetizing Butterball which is then stuffed with slasher/spookshow conventions, all at store brand prices. Overheated acting cooks the bird, and indiscriminate horror enthusiasts are tasked with the feast. With THE AMITYVILLE MURDERS, at least, the pumpkin pie is served before dinner, as this marketing still will prove:

Hard as it is to believe, I don't have a pin-up of fifty-something Diane Franklin hanging on my walls, but the temptation to bust out the tacks is hard to fight. Diane is a naturally gorgeous guiding light, and I always will acknowledge that in the interest of friendship. But what about the performance behind the portrait?

She plays Louise DeFeo with an accent I haven't heard from her before, that of your atypical Italian-American from Long Island, a description you can levy upon the DeFeo family here. The grandparents are played by Burt Young and surprising fixture Lainie Kazan (My Favorite Year and Lust in the Dust), so she's in good company. The opening credits present home movie footage, narrated by teen daughter Dawn (Chelsea Ricketts) on her 18th birthday, and though it's clear this is a cutthroat clan in which the father, Ronnie Sr. (Paul Ben-Victor), aims to lord over everyone in orbit with brute force (even trying to dominate Burt Young, who is having none of it), these are comparatively peaceful times. The exposition even affords Kazan a chance to insult repressed Louise's recipe for marinara sauce ("It tastes like your father's old socks").

Dawn DeFeo is a far more normal girl than Patricia Montelli ever was, with a circle of friends she takes to the red room that was the childhood hiding place for she and her twin brother Ronnie Jr. (John Robinson), aka "Butch." Butch himself doesn't come across half as unwieldy as Sonny; he's relatably sullen and rich with shaggy facial hair that is authentic enough to support comparisons to George Lutz. The teens have their own séance in the red room with grandma Nona's book of black magic, and one of the loutish boys breaks the ice with an Exorcist reference. But Ronnie Sr. soon poops all over their party, and goes one further in his physical abuse of his son compared to Anthony Montelli, rolling his belt around his fist and socking Butch in the nose.

Farrands does these scenes far better than Damiani did, and the DeFeo dynamic cuts deeper than the Montellis' cruel fate, especially since Amityville II writer Tommy Lee Wallace can be too nihilistic in his horror efforts (including Halloween III). The performances by Ben-Victor, Robinson and Ricketts are also given more weight compared to Young, Jack Magner and even the younger Diane Franklin. But then Butch notices his father being paid off by some organized crime types, the first in a bizarre motif, and combined with the supernatural elements introduced earlier in the red room, the focus begins to zig and zag unsatisfactorily.

Butch begins hearing those familiar white noise whispers of evil, and while he's out in the pouring rain having sex in his birthday-gifted car with Donna (Rebekah Graf), he asks for a tab of acid and experiences a violent hallucination which causes him to kick Donna out of the car. It's like a twist on the way the demon from Amityville II assumed Patricia's form to accuse Adamsky of lechery. But then the camera pans up to that 112 Ocean Avenue architecture, with those lit rooms as staring eyes. And I have to admit, though it is an image to remember, I was getting a bit worried about the film's catchall ambiguity.

The next morning, Louise learns whilst collecting laundry that Butch has been kicked out of college. If that weren't enough, she comes across heroin paraphernalia and a diary full of ominous ink blots in Butch's nightstand. All the while, the house is creaking and sputtering like it's announcing complicity in these antisocial revelations; a pigeon even kamakazies itself against the door, and Louise is ready to bash it with a rock until it dies on its own. Cut to Halloween 1974. We get a fraction of time to know the youngest of the DeFeo children (one of the more undernourished aspects of the story) before sickly Butch is left alone with his demons and is presumed to have trashed the house, with the familiar inscription of "PIG" on a mirror and dad's dirty money missing from the safe.

THE AMITYVILLE MURDERS pursues this alternating structure I've attended to quite stoically, with scenes of domestic quarrel giving way to worn-out tropes involving Ouija boards, levitating bed sheets and creeping Steadicams. At some point, I wanted more for these very good actors to do than to just go through the same traveling roadshow haunted house. Even Diane Franklin herself, who makes Louise incredibly gorgeous even at her most dowdy. Her face has unmistakably aged, and it will come as a shock to those who idealized Diane's younger appearances, but it's a dignified and darling process in her case. The stage is set for the adult performance Diane Franklin never gave after leaving fickle showbiz at the start of the 1990s. But Louise is another relatively thankless role, her interactions with other characters mostly shows of fretful hysteria. Diane's innate charisma and playfulness kind of gets the shaft (even in Amityville II, there were moments where she grabbed your heart away from the sleaziness), and there is a potential for depth that is compromised. That regal portrait of Louise I showed earlier never rubs off on the script.

It takes 48 minutes before Butch finally picks up that shotgun for the first time, stirred by his dad's callous abuse of Dawn (she is bent over the kitchen table to make a lewd point to her “hippie” friends) and Louise (whose hands are scalded by boiling water and whose stomach takes a sharp elbowing). Daniel Farrands' slow burn approach is admittedly far superior to the Amityville II school of smash-and-grab plotting, and that outburst is followed by Louise's portentous monologue of togetherness ("I see the end coming. A terrible, beautiful end"). All of a sudden, Diane Franklin kills it, especially in the way Louise, who is ready to pack up and take the kids, calls out her pious husband for misplaced religious beliefs ("Butch is not the devil, he's your son!").

Dawn is also distressed enough to want to spirit her brother to safety, given that dad would rather send him to Bellevue. The $500,000 of lost mob money turns up as Butch slides further into dementia, walking around empty rooms as shadowy figures stalk him. We all know where this is going, and if the film wants to leave us with the visceral gut punch of the mass killings, the story needs to demonstrate economy. Instead, we get a loopy "last supper" from which Dawn is absent and the grisly visions keep negging him, his family coming across as refugees from Invasion of the Body Snatchers and escape being magically impossible. The film can't stop dawdling, producing a numbing effect that actively negates the real tensions that have kept the thin plot afloat. There are moments of psychological unease that needed to be drastically streamlined.

When the inevitable finally occurs, and those poor souls sleeping with their faces down get blown away, the result is sloppy. Louise dies with rosary clutched in hand, but the symbolism is unearned, and the pain I would've felt at the murder of Dawn DeFeo is equally undone. If it hasn't already been inferred, Farrands winds up with too much inconsistency that it undercuts his fascination with this true story, trying to stay true to the Amityville brand while reminding us that barbarism, indeed, begins at home. Thus, the true finale of the film is not the collage of vintage newsreels and photos of the DeFeos, but the introduction of the house to the Lutz family, thus handing over the mantle to a far more dubious reality.

It's all so much and yet too half-baked to digest. I felt the same way about The Last American Virgin, which couldn't square the overbearingly smug juvenile humor with the soppy attempt to humanize its teen cartoons. It just didn't really possess true integrity for that tonal shift, and I am left similarly puzzled by THE AMITYVILLE MURDERS. And I honestly believe Farrands to be the better filmmaker, too. I'm not anticipating the Sharon Tate and Nicole Brown Simpson movies by any measure, but I am thankful he didn't make such a travesty to compare with Amityville II: The Possession. His touch, however, is heavy-handed when compared to a movie like The Id, and more rigid in structure. It's not the CG phenomena or the rampant tackiness of its DTV-level period recreations that strains my critical eye. It's the poor form.

And thus I end up looking forward to Diane Franklin in the future once again. Given all that has gone wrong, chances are it'll be I stumble upon her next movie by serendipity, or at least I hope to given I disconnected from so many circles, hers included. I keep yearning for some kind of happy return, but the last time I tried, it was the bane of my battered soul. And it still haunts me. But Diane Franklin was never the problem, because her support has kept me going for the longest time. If this is to be my birthday present to a woman who values my friendship, I have to end it by wishing her a great 58 and to make one more wish for myself on April 3.

Diane Franklin, I hope to rediscover you through all this masquerade and somehow stay in a state of grace with you. I believe there's a ghost of a chance. R.I.P. Neil Peart, and Happy Birthday, Dear Diane.

(P.S. I hope those who get those that particular Rush reference will make the connection to Better Off Dead.)


  1. Johnny! This is such an honest, deeply thought out and thoughtful review. I will cherish it forever. Thank you for sharing your feelings as well. It is a gift too. I am blown away..With much gratitude and respect, Diane

  2. Hey Johnny, this is a very nice piece. Sorry I didn't reply sooner, I have had a lot on my plate just now. Hope life treats you a bit better today than it did yesterday, and the same the day after.